Open end

The Imagine Festival drew to a close on Thursday with a workshop on the most pressing challenges relating to data and data access.

Intelligent Mobility has been defined as the “smart movement of people and goods”, but there is a growing awareness that to achieve that goal the transport sector will also have to encourage the smarter movement of data.

With that in mind, the Transport Systems Catapult (TSC) dedicated the final event of its two-week-long Imagine Festival to the “Data Challenge” – hosting a workshop for data experts, academics, SMEs and transport planners to identify the major obstacles in this field, and to draw up a to-do list for overcoming those obstacles.

It was also a further opportunity to raise awareness about the TSC and get feedback from attendees as to how the Catapult can help them in meeting their various data challenges.

“We ran an event for academics last November, which was where access to data came up as one of the main topics to be addressed,” TSC Chief Technical Officer Paul Zanelli told the workshop participants as the day got underway.

“But the Catapult is not just about one community, which is why we have opened up this event to non-academics as well. We ourselves already have some projects running which have a lot to do with wider access to data, so today we want to join all these things together.”

Lining up

The first activity saw the attendees voting with their feet, as the current situation in terms of data access and handling was examined via a series of ‘human histograms’. Faced with a number of questions such as “Over the past year, how easy have you found it to find, access and use the data you need?” or “Are you working primarily with data generated by people or data generated by things?”, the participants were asked to places themselves along an invisible line corresponding to a scale between one and ten.

The result each time was a fairly evenly-spread line-up along the scale, suggesting a wide variety of experiences with data sets. When asked if their access to data had improved recently, however, there was a near unanimous show of hands that this was the case.

The rest of the day was then dedicated to identifying ten main challenges in regards to accessing or handling data, and how best to set about meeting those challenges. Among the challenges identified were the issue of data privacy requirements (and the effect that these have on the quality, accuracy and depth of data obtainable), the standardisation and normalisation of data (converting it into a useful format), the resources available for effective data analysis, the incentives and business cases for sharing data more freely, the abandoning of important public data sets due to budget cuts, and concerns over the exclusion of some people (for example, those without smart phones).

Focus on challenges

During the afternoon, the workshop split into small groups to focus on each of these challenges, looking at what work was needed to overcome them, who should be involved and what possible roles the delegates could imagine the TSC taking on within that process – for example, setting up “walled gardens” where people working with different data sets could share more of their information with each other, without having to worry about accidentally giving out other information that might be confidential or commercially sensitive.

Given the huge nature of the topic, there was no expectation that the workshop would end with a set of final solutions. Instead, it was seen as the start of an ongoing engagement between the Catapult and those working (or wanting to work) with data sets, with the Catapult team now collating the output from the workshop groups. In keeping with the emphasis on sharing information, these findings will then be disseminated not only to the workshop attendees but also to the wider transport and data communities, with the aim of accelerating the spread of useful data in regards to Intelligent Mobility.

“It was clear from today’s discussions that there is a real willingness to share data, but more still has to be done to address concerns over privacy, the meaningfulness and format of the data, and the commercial sensitivities that have tended to discourage sharing in the past,” Zanelli said as the workshop came to a close. “In most of these areas, technology itself is not the main obstacle. We already have the technology for most of this stuff, so it’s more about bringing down the barriers between people and between organisations.

“We see the Transport Systems Catapult as being a great catalyst for doing exactly that, because we are providing a neutral space for all these different groups to come together and work on shared challenges. So today was just a beginning, but a really good one, because we’ve heard directly from people working with data in all these different sectors about the main challenges and some concrete steps we can start taking now to address them.”

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